“Save the government”

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When our third- and fourth-grade grandchildren come over to visit, they like to play in the unfinished room in our basement. Sometimes they set up the card tables and chairs to play “school,” or “store,” or “city government.” I was a bit shocked and saddened a couple of days ago to find two signs they had posted on the wall: “Save the government,” and “Make it so terror does not become the government.”

I wondered: Are we adults responsible for this? Have we somehow instilled in them such anxiety about what is going on in the world that they fear for their freedom? Is this the legacy national leaders are leaving to children—doubt and fear?

Children should not have to worry that their way of life—freedom as they know it—is going to disappear.

They hear, and they know. Times have been tumultuous recently, especially in the political arena. Our resolve and our commitment to a democratic republic have been tested, and the tests are ongoing.

Integrity seemed to be an early casualty in the 2016 election campaign. Honesty and civility suffered severe setbacks. Freedom of speech and thought are under ongoing attack.

But I still have confidence in the right to think and speak what we believe to be right. I have hope that in the end this freedom will prevail.

Now, I am a natural-born pessimist. I tend to believe Murphy’s Law: “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.” I live prepared for people to disappoint me, seeking their own welfare first and foremost, ignoring the common good. (And how often, I have to ask, am I guilty of this?)

Fortunately, my wife–ever the optimist in our home–balances me out.

But as I have gotten older, I have become more optimistic. I have come to realize more and more that living in expectation of trouble is no way to build a worthwhile life. If you want happiness, look for it, seek it out, and if necessary, make it yourself. If you don’t want to be weighed down by gloom at the end of the day, look for happiness and joy along the way. They are there when you pay attention. Did you find them in the slant of early light through the trees this morning? In the mother at the store with a young child, or children, curiously and delightedly getting to know the world around them? In a quiet opportunity to read and ponder great ideas?

More and more I have tried to implement in my life the counsel of a man I accepted and honored as a prophet of God. Gordon B. Hinckley taught: “There is a terrible epidemic of pessimism in the land. . . . I come . . . with a plea that we stop seeking out the storms and enjoy more fully the sunlight.” He shared this counsel from his wise father: “Cynics do not contribute, skeptics do not create, doubters do not achieve.”

We can all learn from our mistakes, of course, and we all have need to repent of our sins and errors. But when we look at those mistakes, do we also consider the good that may have come from our more selfless actions?

Struggle in this life begins when we are very young, and it will continue as long as we live on earth. After more than 70 years of facing it, the only useful approach I see to dealing with this struggle is simply to keep going on. Move forward. When you keep moving forward, you eventually reach your goals.

Again, I have come to rely on the counsel of Gordon B. Hinckley: “Keep trying. . . . Be believing. Be happy. Don’t get discouraged. Things will work out.”

That is a lesson I hope to help my grandchildren learn.

 

 

The Rose Parade and Repentance

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This wasn’t what people came to see—a man with a banner and a bullhorn calling on them to repent or face the wrath of God.

They came to see the annual Rose Parade, an event whose organizers like to call it rose-prd-2ja17_dsc00293America’s New Year celebration. They came to see pageantry and pomp and beauty. What they saw instead, before the parade, was people telling them they are wicked and sinful and they’re on their way to being damned.

Spectators along our part of the parade route didn’t take this news well. The people with the banners and bullhorns were booed, there were snickers and jibes about their message, and there were cheers and clapping when the police motorcycle squad came along to clear them off the parade route.

It was hardly news that many of us are sinners—or at least it wasn’t to me. I know that I often do things Jesus Christ would not have approved. I am a man full of mortal weakness, and I certainly have need to repent. But most of us don’t enjoy being called out publicly for our hypocrisy or vanity or weakness.

I know that Jesus Christ will come again to the earth and we will all be responsible for the way we have lived our lives here. But the preaching we heard on Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena that day didn’t seem like the best way to spread the good news of His gospel. There was a lot about wrath and very little about the hope He extends to us if we repent. I believe hope is more effective in changing lives than chastisement. We all know our own sins. What we need to understand is how things can change for us when we give them up.

Still, I have to admire the courage of the people who were out there preaching. They must have known they would be received with ridicule and antagonism. It was the same reception given to prophets in Old Testament times, in Christ’s day, in Book of Mormon societies, and even in the present day. Those street preachers in Pasadena knew that what they did before the Rose Parade would be uncomfortable, unwelcome to many, possibly even hazardous. It took faith and deep commitment to their beliefs.

Something tells me that all of us who believe are going to need this kind of courage and commitment in coming days. Many of believe that a child knowingly invited by two people to grow in the womb has a right to experience life on this earth. Many of us believe that our gender is an assignment given before we came to earth and that rejecting it is rejecting a path God wants us to follow. Many of us believe that marriage was instituted by God to create a partnership in which one of His daughters and one of His sons grow together through mortal life, and beyond. We who believe these things are accused of ignorance, of bigotry, of narrow-mindedness by those who wish to force us to accept their way of thinking.

It is as though we were heretically teaching that the earth is round, when everyone agrees it must be flat, or that the emperor, naked as the day he was born, is wearing a beautiful new suit of clothes. Our very right to believe anything other than the groupthink favored by the most vocal and strident among us is being challenged. There are indications that anyone in our society who cannot accept a new “reality” that ignores moral anchors can expect to be punished. We may be shunned or charged, illogically, with hate and prejudice. There will be no escaping the intellectual tyranny.

If we insist on maintaining our right to believe according to our faith, and not according to the dictates of an unmoored society, we may need the depth of commitment of those street preachers at the Rose Parade.

Charity: An Opportunity Missed

20-billMy wife and I were out for our morning walk on a cold December morning. We were busy talking about our plans for family holiday activities when we met part of a small family coming toward us—a woman and two children.

The woman was African—or at least the bright dress she wore, with no coat, seemed African. The children, a girl of about nine and a boy of about six or seven, wore thin jackets. The girl had outsize shoes that looked like they could have been her mother’s, or perhaps something from a thrift store rack. My mind registered the mother and children as perhaps recently arrived refugees. I hoped they had a secure place to settle in.

We were several seconds past them when a voice whispered in my mind, “She could have used that $20 bill you’re carrying in your pocket. You were looking for a way to donate to charity.”

I looked over my shoulder but could not see them. Which way had they gone? Around the corner to the store we just came from? Down a side street? Into one of the houses along here? No, probably not that.

Why am I so slow to see opportunity right in front of me?

What would she have said if I had offered her the money?

Most of us probably walk around every day overlooking opportunities to give and to serve. Often we’re too wrapped up in our own concerns; that is not only usual, but normal for mortals. We have to look outward to discern how others may be in need. The tip-off might not be a frayed old coat. It might be a frayed life, or a threadbare, gloomy outlook. It might be thin, struggling faith.

Maybe it’s too awkward to think of helping; we don’t know how to begin. Maybe “You have a problem and I want to help” could be phrased a bit more diplomatically. “Is there a way I could help you? May I?”

Maybe there’s a risk that helping could get out of control. “If I offer to help, they may take me up on it, and I have so much giong on right now. . . .” If we’re going to say “May I help?” we’d better mean it.

Offering to help might lead to more of a commitment than I expect. “What if $20 isn’t enough? That’s all I have to give right now.” Not so. We can give time, we can share faith in the heavenly proclamation of peace to mankind, and we can share resources. If we don’t have more money to give, perhaps we know someone who does. Or perhaps the time we give could help someone in need find spiritual or temporal aid to take away hopelessness or pain.

A little thought can open our minds to a lot of possibilities.

And what would that woman have said if I had stopped to offer her the $20?

I don’t know. But next time I’m going to find out.

 

“Some Assembly Required”

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Bolts, washers, and end caps ready for packaging.

Probably every adult reading this has had the experience of buying something that needs to be assembled according to “simple, easy” instructions. And many have had the experience of getting part way through the task only to find that a key component is missing.
The parts list says: “Eight 5/16 X 5 ½” bolts. Eight ¾” washers. Eight tan plastic bolt end caps.” Now where was that last bolt? Let’s see . . . one, two, three, four . . . seven! Only seven 5/16 by 5 ½” bolts! Now how am I supposed to finish this???
Sound familiar? The absolute worst time for this to happen is on Christmas Eve. (I can remember making a metal shim out of a piece of copper so a bolt would stay in place and I could finish putting together a little boy’s tricycle before morning.)
Maybe all the bolts are there, but one hole is in the wrong place. Or maybe the bolt is just too big to fit.
So we mentally curse the dunderheads at the factory who left out that one bolt, or drilled the hole in the wrong place.
Well, this afternoon I found myself on the other end of the process. In fulfilling a volunteer service assignment, I ended up working in a furniture factory putting together the hardware packages—bags of bolts, washers, and bolt end caps—that go with a piece of assemble-it-yourself furniture. It is precisely the kind of work I never could have done for a living. It seemed mind-numbing at first. Back when I was 16, I had the opportunity to visit a Chevrolet assembly plant in Wisconsin. Workers standing on the assembly line used air wrenches to tighten the same two or three bolts in the car frame, then stepped away until the next frame moved into place, and repeated the same process over and over and over. Never! No matter how much it paid, I thought, I could never do that hour after hour, day after endless day. (Maybe that is why robots are doing so much of the work in factories these days.)
But this afternoon I learned several things: the work is not as mindless as it looks; I can make the assignment challenging; and my mind can accomplish others things at the same time.
The supervisor showed me how to do it: Line up eight bolts in a specially slotted board, count out eight washers and eight end caps, put them all in a plastic locking bag, roll up that bag and pack it into a storage bin, then start over. He opened a new box of bolts for me and left me on my own. Soon I was experimenting with different ways to do the job more effectively or quicker. Some things worked well, others didn’t. I found the system that worked best for me, got into a rhythm, and built up my speed. Before the end of the shift, I met the goal I had set for myself—use up that entire large box of bolts and start on a new one.
After some practice, I found I could multitask; my body and part of my brain were doing the job at hand while another part of my brain was turning over and fleshing out some new ideas.
Life can be like that. Certain tasks can seem mundane, boring, even useless, though they must be done for us to move forward. We can curse them and put them off, or we can accept the challenge, find our own ways to simplify and overcome them, then move on to things we feel are more productive.
But in meeting the challenge, we grow, and God makes us more capable of doing the things He wants us to do, the things that are most important for us to do on earth.
That is the way we move toward the perfection the Savior expects of us (see Matthew 5:48). We will never reach it here on earth, but here on earth is the place to learn how to go forward in eternity.

Dawn in the Desert

cacticm51-23nv16_p1030216bWe’ve just spent a week in desert areas of southern Arizona, and it has helped me appreciate again the great variety and diversity of life on this planet, as well as the nature of our own growth.

When I was a boy, the Walt Disney company released a fascinating and beautiful film called The Living Desert. It taught a lot about the life we don’t see when we gaze out over a landscape filled with sagebrush and cactus—about the insects, reptiles, plants, birds, and other creatures that go about living in an interactive ecosystem.

By day, deserts look very bleak and forbidding. But dawn or sunset shows things in a different light.

 

There is struggle here for life,

challenge on every side,

and peril in the living things,

both plant and predator.

Thorns and spines protect

hardy plants and tenacious trees

sucking scarce moisture from the earth.

applesrx-23nv16_dsc00986bOnly on penalty of pain

can hungry desert dwellers

taste green succulence.

Venom, claws, and tearing teeth

are survival tools

for animals born and bred

in this environment.

There is no ease here

for any living thing.

 

So, too, for humans.

Some choose desert places

for their solitude,

or for opportunity

to do and be freely,

without dictate

of strict society.

Others choose luxuriant habitats

where thorns and spines,

venom and ripping claws

are seldom visible.

Rarely do we look, and understand,

that every environment,

whether place of choice

or of inevitable destiny,

has its frightening perils,

some obvious to the eye,

some disguised as pleasure.

 

A dawning in the desert

or the setting of the sun

put new and clear perspective

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and the life that these protect.

What endures here is hardy,

prepared for constant struggle,

magnificent in strength

and ability to thrive,

beautiful in resolve.

 

Blessed are the wise

who can see the beauty.

 

“The Merry Minuet” Goes On

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Slim Pickens as a crazed Air Force pilot riding a nuclear bomb down to certain oblivion in “Dr. Strangelove.”

Back in the late 1950s, my favorite singing group, The Kingston Trio, performed a song called “The Merry Minuet” by Sheldon Harnick. It mocked the current tragedies of the time and the possibility of our world ending in nuclear war. I suppose it was a form of whistling past the graveyard—of taking some of the edge off of the unthinkable possibilities. At 14, I thought the song was terribly funny and witty.
I still listen to my old Kingston Trio favorites, but I notice that this particular song isn’t included in their collections. And I can’t laugh about that song anymore. The reason isn’t that the world seems more grim now than it did back then, but that I am disappointed because the world doesn’t seem to have changed much. Almost 60 years have passed, and what progress have we made toward world peace or harmony?
The song spoke of natural calamities, of strife in Africa and Iraq, of political unrest and possible upheaval in Europe. Then—well, listen to some of the words that followed:
“But we can be tranquil and thankful and proud
For man’s been endowed with the mushroom-shaped cloud
And we know for certain that some lovely day
Someone will set the spark off
And we will all be blown away . . . .”
Members of my generation were confronted in our teens with the possibility that nuclear war could end the world as we knew it. Want to see how that messed with our minds? Go online and look for a movie called “On the Beach,” a grim 1959 drama about the last survivors of a global nuclear war waiting in Australia to die as radiation poisoning in the atmosphere finally teaches them. Or check out the Peter Sellers black comedy classic “Dr. Strangelove: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.” At the end of that one, audiences didn’t know whether to laugh or go home and hide.
In the decades that passed, the world was shaped politically by the concepts of Mutually Assured Destruction and détente to make nuclear war an almost unthinkable option for any nation. Perhaps we all came to breathe a little easier. The duck-and-cover drills of our youth and the idea of building a backyard bomb shelter faded away. (See the more recent movie “Blast from the Past.”) We all thought the Cold War was gone for good.
But now there are militant terrorist groups—not nations, but fanatical ideologues–unimpressed by the concept of détente and undeterred by the fear of Mutually Assured Destruction. Some of them would not care how many people might have to die in a nuclear exchange so long as they were the last people left standing. Some of them would dearly love to get their hands on nuclear weapons.
Listen to the ending of “The Merry Minuet”:
“What nature doesn’t do to us
Will be done by our fellow man.”
With random, unpredictable terrorist attacks, there seems to be almost no place on earth where we can be safe from the harm done by our fellow man or woman, if that person is determined to kill or wreak havoc. And a resurgent Russia, with egotistical, ambitious Vladimir Putin leading the way, seems bent on confronting the West militarily. So where is safety?
Of course, there are steps we can take—learn how to avoid places where terror attacks might happen, build that backyard bunker, maybe carry a weapon. But nothing can offer complete security. There is always the crazy who suddenly snaps when you’re on hand, or the stray meteorite.
I don’t mean to make light of the possibilities. Of course we should be as prepared as possible to protect ourselves. But life has always been unpredictable, and may be uncertain at times despite our best efforts. I believe that the best protection is to live a good life. Sure, protect yourself as best you can. But live so that you can confidently ask for God’s protection. He truly does give it when we still have work to do for Him on this earth. And when He chooses to take us, we will be prepared to meet Him—even if death comes at the hands of someone bent on murder and destruction.
The only real protection the world has against people like those is for all of us to live God’s laws. There will always be weapons of destruction available to people who want to use them. Preventing sick and hate-filled people from having these weapons is an excellent idea, of course, but ultimate protection lies in creating a world where there is no one who has the desire to use them.

Good-bye to One of God’s Nobles

carl-funeralWe said good-bye to our friend Carl a couple of days ago. He passed away doing something he loved—looking for a little gold. Someone found him in one of the wild places of Idaho where he loved to go to pan for small flakes of the precious metal.

Carl would smile and say that he had gold fever. But he never cared about getting rich from the gold. He just loved being out in those beautiful, solitary places. It was always Carl and his beloved companion Buddy, the black and white spaniel, out there by one of those streams. Then a few months ago, sadly, Buddy had to be put down.

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Carl teaches a grandson about panning for gold.

Carl always gave away the gold he discovered. Many family members and friends have a memento of his search for gold—a necklace with a small blue stone and a flake of gold for the women, or a tie tack in the shape of a gold pan with a flake of gold in it for the men.

That was the way Carl lived—always giving. We saw him from time to time walking past our house to check on the blind widow who lived on the other side of us. We learned at the funeral that he wasn’t just checking in at her door. He would sit and read to her for her pleasure.

Carl was buried with military honors. He served in Vietnam almost 50 years ago. He was trained for combat, but his posting had him in support areas behind the lines. He could not stand the Army’s “hurry up and wait” between assignments, so he scrounged some materials and built a “hootch” for him and his tent mates to live in. It afforded more protection than their tent. When his superiors saw what he had done by himself, they pulled Carl off of some of his regular assignments, provided the needed materials, and had him build more hootches to house other soldiers.

He was always resourceful. Sometime after returning home, he was in a snowmobile accident that severely damaged nerves in his left arm. He could use his hand well enough, but he carried the arm in a homemade leather sling strap he had made. He became a handyman to people in the small pioneer farm town where he lived. He was skilled in carpentry, plumbing, and maintenance. From across the street, he watched over our house for us when we weren’t there.

One day Carl saw me out trying to cut some dead limbs off a tree. He strolled over to tell me I ought to let him do that. What he said next was horrifying: “You’re so much more valuable to the kingdom of God than I am, and you could get hurt up there working on that ladder.” I assured him firmly that if there were any question of ranking in heaven, I would certainly not rank above him. But there was no dissuading him from the chore. Standing on the ladder, he used his good arm to swing the chain saw up to rest the blade on a limb, then triggered the saw to cut through the dead wood, and when the limb fell, let the saw swing in an arc down past his leg. He did it again and again, until the dead limbs were gone.

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The gold never made him a rich man–but the searching did.

The funeral was well-attended. Everyone in town knew and trusted Carl. When Mrs. S. went across the street beforehand to see if she could retrieve our house keys, Carl’s daughter had to sort through many sets. It seems Carl had access to quite a number of the houses in town. We never knew when he had visited our house unless he told us; he always left everything in good order.

Carl was not perfect. None of us is. But he was vastly underrated by many people—including Carl. He was the kind of person the world desperately needs. His passing is a loss to us all.

With all he knew about everyone in town, I never heard him say a critical word about anyone. It just wasn’t in him. He could laugh about someone’s very human foibles—including his own—or allow as how he might have done things differently. But he wasn’t one to speak ill.

In his relationships with other people as in his hobby, Carl always looked for the gold.